The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 8


Critters in Cyberspace
Old-Time Music on the Internet

by Tommy Bledsoe

Welcome to a Brave New World

Although I am more comfortable with a banjo as a laptop, I have been spending a lot of time lately trying to make sense of cyberspace, particularly the Internet, that curious symbiosis between computers and telephones that is extolled as the wave of the future. You should understand, I have never been anywhere near the leading edge of technology. My soul is old. Heck, I still carry a pocket watch. The Internet is an enormous network of 40,000 computer systems in 70 countries. That I can ever fully understand it is unlikely, but at least I need to find a way to put it in perspective. It is here, it is not going away; it is a way to find information and reach people, and I want to know how to use it.

I have heard the Internet described variously as democratic and egalitarian, as an encyclopedia, a community, a network of potential friends and business associates, a world-wide bulletin board and whatever other hype necessary to persuade the reluctant consumer. The ads ask us, "Where in the world do you want to go today?" The implication is that what we need lies outside our immediate world, and the Internet is the doorway to finding it. What they never ask is, "What part of your world do you hope never changes?"

Those parts of our world that change little, and slowly, are our traditions. To exist they must be passed on to the next generations. When the means or the opportunities for passing on the knowledge change or disappear, it becomes necessary to make adjustments in the methods of transmission or to allow the mutation or the cessation of that aspect of the culture. It happens each time a "new" technology comes along. Now is the time to anticipate the impact of the Internet on traditional culture and to accommodate this technology that endangers many of our traditions, especially those invested in the oral process.


The Friendly Borg

Virtual reality appears to be in direct conflict with traditional culture. Traditions are connected to other people, to history and communities. The cybercitizen—at least as clich—?—is far from traditional. He is the anonymous, lone hacker hunched over a keyboard in the pale light of a video monitor, seeking virtual omnipotence. With the click of a mouse he downloads mountains of digital bytes and digests them in the privacy of his pad. It is the cat, playing with its private mouse. Get too close, he disappears; update the science, he mutates. He is the Borg, or so it seems.

But suppose this is just another stereotype, created by those of us who resist this new technology. Suppose there is no such thing as an evil technology, only evil or ill conceived applications of the ingenious developments of science and industry. After all, it was not the technology of television that created damaging images of the cultures of the Appalachians or American Indians or African Americans; it was the ignorance or ill will of the people who gained access to the tools and processes for creating the images. Similarly, when Appalachian or Native- or African-American filmmakers recast the image with the same technology, the images became true and positive. So, I ask, "What are the good applications of the Internet, and how can we implement them?"


A Blind Pig Finds an Acorn

I searched the Internet for some connection to traditional culture, but it was a most frustrating effort. In fact, most of my early forays online ended in blind alleys and interminable waits, staring at Bill Gates’ hourglass. I was ready to give up, disenfranchised from cyberspace. Still, even a blind pig can find a few acorns; I just had to locate a tree.

Then, lo, and behold! While on tour I pulled into Blacksburg, VA in late 1996, I picked up a copy of the campus newspaper, the Collegiate Times, to see what was happening. There on the front page was the headline, "Local musicians perform on-line." I read on, expecting to find out about the local techno-rockers latest cybergig. Surprise! It was the Konnarock Critters!

Say what? Was this another Jim Lloyd prank? I love the Critters’ music, and I am a real fan of the band, but I could not have imagined finding the Critters in cyberspace. At least, though, this connected old-time music with this alien cyberspace.


Old at Heart

The core of Konnarock Critters band is the brother-sister fiddle and banjo duo Brian and Debbie Grimm, fourth generation musicians who grew up in Konnarock, a small community in southwestern Virginia. Their music is rooted in the tradition of great old-time dance bands. The guitar player, Jim Lloyd of Rural Retreat, VA, is likewise steeped in musical tradition and storytelling. They are young’uns, but old at heart, and they are carrying on the best the old folks have handed them. Al Firth, who plays bass, is relatively new to the band but he is no newcomer to bluegrass and old-time music. It does not get much more traditional than this.

I had just heard the Critters play at the Carter Fold, in Mace’s Springs, Virginia, a venue known for both its for great old-time and bluegrass music performances and its homey, low-tech approach to presenting music and dance. The Critters gave the Fold crowd of 400-plus just what they wanted: shoe-leather burning dance tunes and a warm family show. Clearly, the Critters were at home with this audience of die-hard old-time music fans.


Now, Back to the Future.

The performance by the Critters at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) was a horse of a different color. It was the second of a three-part series called "The On-Line Front Porch," brain-child of Matthew Saunders (, a graduate student in VPI’s Theater Arts department. The project was a collaboration of the VPI School of the Arts, VPI Appalachian Studies, Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia and the William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, Virginia.

In the summer of 1996, Matthew worked as production coordinator for "Living Traditions," a series of film showings, concerts, and workshops sponsored by the William King Regional Arts Center. The "On-Line Front Porch" idea developed in consort with Polly King Ewell, director of "Living Traditions," and Critter Jim Lloyd, then music director for the series. Together, they imagined linking Appalachian performers with audiences on the Web in an interactive setting. I suspect that what happened, too, was that Matthew Saunders and his co-conspirators in the "On-Line Front Porch" project could not help but envision the "next wave" of public performance.


Take a Trip Without Leaving the Farm

The concert aired from a "black box" theater in the Theater Arts building. This is a rectangular room outfitted with a lighting and sound system, a control room for technical support, and a flexible seating and performance area. The stage was a raised platform centered along one long wall. It faced a video camera at stage level centered on the opposite wall. Off stage left, a portable movie screen stared at the audience (more about this later), who occupied a couple of rows of wooden bleachers and assorted folding chairs. Directly across from the movie screen was the entrance, which was partially obstructed by a video monitor that was itself monitored by one of those cool little eyeball cameras on a gooseneck stand. All pretty Wizard of Oz-like, except there were no curtains.

Following a brief welcome and recap of the project by Matthew Saunders, the Konnarock Critters stepped forth to deliver their ancient-sounding old-time music. Brian’s cross-tuned fiddle droned and throbbed melodically above Debbie’s clear percussive banjo frailing. Jim and Al punched the rhythm and bass beat along at an entrancing pace. When a child and her mother jumped into the second tune the dancing began. As with most hot bands, the music got hotter as the dancers added their energies to the room.

The Critter’s paced their dance-heavy program by including some interesting songs. Their rendition of Ola Belle Reed’s "I’ve Endured" was especially appropriate within the context of this particular event. The free concert lasted almost an hour, including some stories and sidelights by Jim and the band. At one point, Jim played his grandfather’s guitar on a tune or two to fulfill a promise he had made to connect his family history to the world.

It was a fine evening of history-making music on the World Wide Web. Too bad so many people missed it.


The Big Picture

To give you an idea of the Big Picture, Internet-wise, in January 1998, Nua, a European online consultant and developer, estimated there were 100.5 million subscribers worldwide, half of those in the United States. A "subscriber" averages 1.75 people who use that computer. That is 175,875,000 potential users who can access any of millions of web sites in the world.

Now consider this. By all estimates, the live audience at VPI outnumbered the cyber audience by at least 4:1. Only six to ten known Internet users actually watched the Critters’ online performance. Given the random possibility that a few browsers happened upon this particular site, there may have actually been 15 lucky people online along with the 60-or-so people who attended the concert.

Regardless of the small number of people who saw the concert on-line, Matthew Saunders was pleased with the event. His impetus for the project, aside from getting his Master of Fine Arts degree, was to look deeper into using technology to strengthen art and culture. He is not as interested in the commercial applications of traditional arts on the Internet as much as anticipating the domination and subversion of art by technology.

"I fear two things," Matthew says. "First, that the arts will be left behind as it resists new technologies. We, as artists, tend to live marginalized existences—taking part in society, but as outsiders. Artists need to become very active community members. . . they need to participate. This includes embracing new technologies and using them in appropriate ways. The second thing I fear is the technology taking (command) of the art form. . . that arts can become a mechanism to ‘show off’ the technology. If that happens, the art loses its integrity. It becomes driven by the medium, not by the creative spark."


Completing the Circle

One of the great things about live concerts is the opportunity for the audience to meet and talk to the musicians, and vice-versa. This is an important not only to demystify the music and musicians, but also to reinforce the humanity of the art. Without it, we musicians may never realize that people come to concerts not only to hear/see us, but also to see/hear themselves in the music we play. It completes the circle.

Since the cyber audience could not follow the band to the local watering hole to talk, the Critters stayed on the stage so they could still be online for a "talkback" from both the real and cyber audience. Remember the screen? One person was hooked up to "talk back" online. She was on campus, and had watched the concert on-line. Nonetheless, she was a "virtual model" and her image was projected on the screen. Despite the "buggy" technology (jerky, time-delayed images with real-time audio), it worked. By completing the circle between the performers and a "virtual audience," this distant observer could actively participate in the artistic process.

There were some interesting thoughts proffered by the band regarding the project. The Critters were level-headed about this event. This was not the "big break," and they knew it. When asked about being on-line, Al Firth replied, "This is nothing different than what happened when musicians were first recorded by those traveling folklorists and their tape machines, or when 78 rpm records first came around. We just did what we do, which is play."

The point was well taken; it was just another gig. However, the artist is only part of the picture. To take this to the next step, history shows us that those who control the technology will do what they do, also. Images and art are the fuel for careers and industries for which we become fodder or fellows, depending on our initiative and resources. Can we use cyber technology, or will it use us? What is more important, how do we take control of it when many of us do not even use it?


Whose Deck is This, Anyway?

That Internet use is growing rapidly should come as no surprise, given the push by everyone from President Clinton down to local school boards and libraries to provide even the poorest and most isolated schools and communities with computers and access to the Internet. Predictions are that by 2000, 95% of both household and business computer users will have access to the Internet.

All of this presents us with a disturbing paradox. Some behavioral and social problems are caused or exacerbated by lack of human guidance. Active parenting, mentoring and community-building are advocated to head off some of these problems. At the same time, more people of all ages are spending more time at a keyboard than they spend talking to each other. What impact will cyberculture have on families, traditional culture, and local communities when it is easier to look outside our cultures to find communities and "friends"?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have just completed the first intensive study of the social and psychological effects of Internet users. They concluded that people who spend even a few hours on-line have higher levels of depression and loneliness than they would have if they had used the Internet less frequently. It is not just that depressed people tended to use the Internet more, because these were "normal adults and their families, and on the average, for those who used the Internet the most, things got worse." Incidentally, the results did not meet the expectations of the funders of the study, which included Intel Corp., Hewlett Packard, Apple Computers, and AT&T Research.

The Virginia Tech Appalachian Studies department has proposed their own study. Their study will look at the impact on mountain culture, but the discoveries will have implications for other cultures, as well. Anita Puckett, Virginia Tech anthropologist with the Appalachian Center, points out, "Each time a new technology is introduced to the mountains; be it railroads, telephones, continuous miners, or the Internet, the cards may be shuffled but it is still the same deck. Major decisions are being made by people who don’t live here, and who don’t share the same concerns about the culture or traditions that mountain people do.

"Regardless of what the engineers tell us, this technology will affect the culture. We have to be the guardians of that which we can not afford to lose or replace, and we have to make sure that the issues are public so other people can know what is happening."

Once a change occurs in either the method of transmission of cultural knowledge or in the knowledge itself, there is no turning back. As people become familiar, even fluent, with computers and the Internet, they are one step further from the primary sources of cultural information. Unless young people listen to, talk with and learn from older generations, they will not carry forth traditions of music, art, history, crafts, food, religion, medicine, dance, folklore or anything else that involves community interaction. This information is not being taught in schools, nor is it reinforced by popular culture. If the Internet becomes the community, it will bear the culture.


Grandma Internet

There is always resistance to new things, especially things that separate people from other people. Even television and telephones took a while to replace conversation around the table and visits to community information clearinghouses like the country stores and local gossips. However, television took hold slowly because it competed with existing media and entertainment. This technology is piggy-backed with television, telephones, and cable service. It smells like big money. This ensures that it will be with us for some time. This is good enough reason for making an effort to learn about the beast and to devise clever ways to control cultural morphing. For many, it is a steep learning curve.

According to anthropologist Anita Puckett, "new" technology goes through three phases. First, it duplicates the previous technology; for instance, the family sat around the television just like they did around the radio. Next, it expands the uses, as when the television became an surrogate baby-sitter, a way to occupy the children while the parents were otherwise occupied. Ultimately, science created previously unimagined possibilities for television, like distance learning and now the Internet.

Even the best technology carries with it new and unimagined dangers. Your great-great-grandparents never imagined a hole in the ozone or faced the possibility of a 747 falling out of the sky. We can not conceive of the results of total immersion into the Internet. Let us imagine the problems as avidly as we imagine the possibilities and find a balance we can live with.

There are simple ways to get involved. Newsgroups and discussion groups are ongoing. There are good models such as the New River Old-Time discussion group based at Virginia Tech. These folks use the Internet like it is the pot-bellied stove at the general store, to the benefit of themselves and their music community. There must be others doing the same. There are many sites that can be valuable resources. Search engines will help you locate them, or, better yet, ask someone about their favorite sites. Look in magazines and publications like OTH for established online discussion groups and sites that can link you to others (it is a "Web" after all).

We should use the Internet, but we should be diligent in protecting the fragile processes that connect us to our humanity. As my favorite fortune cookie said, "Look ahead, and see the end from the beginning."


Tommy Bledsoe grew up in Scott County, VA, where he learned to play guitar and banjo from many traditional musicians. He is a record producer and has recorded with Wry Straw, the Home Folks Band, Uncle Charlie Osborne, Rich Kirby, and his wife, Joy D’Elia. He has produced and performed on public television. Of cyberspace, Tommy says, "The intersection of traditional and popular culture is where civilizations are strengthened or crumbled."

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